Dear Working Preacher,
I tend to think that our best sermons arise from our questions. Do you know what I mean? It’s often the really challenging passages — the ones that make you scratch your head wondering what the heck it means — that yield the most interesting sermons. (Not without effort, mind you!) That’s why I often start my sermon prep by trying to listen carefully to the passage and jotting down any and all questions that come to mind. And then I’ll do it again and try to imagine and anticipate some of the questions that may strike my listeners. (Of course we don’t need only to anticipate those questions any more, we can actually ask our folks in an email ahead of time or during the service.)
One thing that’s interesting about this approach is to note how some of our questions change over the years, especially with a passage like today’s that we read and preach every year. Many years ago, for instance, I wondered why it seemed so difficult for Thomas to believe. He had the testimony of all the other disciples — wasn’t that good enough for him? Over time, however, his doubt and disbelief made more and more sense to me. After all, as opposed to simply having the testimony of his friends, he’d actually seen — first hand — his Lord crucified. In the face of that stark reality, I can more easily understand that Thomas had a very hard time believing news that was, quite literally, too good to be true.
Some time later, my question shifted. Rather than wonder why Thomas struggled to believe, I wondered why Jesus seemed to answer him so harshly. After all, Thomas only asks for what the other disciples had already received. Have you ever noticed that? After Jesus greets them, he shows them his hand and his sides. Why? To prove that he wasn’t a ghost or apparition or someone that merely looked like Jesus but rather that the one who had been nailed to the cross and pierced in the side was the same one who now stood in front of them, raised from the dead. And so Thomas asks for the same thing. So why the rebuke from Jesus?
In time, I came to believe that Jesus’ words aren’t actually a rebuke. In fact, I came to suspect that Jesus isn’t speaking to Thomas nearly as much as Jesus is speaking to us.
Here’s why. The Fourth Evangelist — the one we call John but that goes unnamed in the Gospel itself (except perhaps as “the one Jesus loved”) — is writing for a community of faith that, like Thomas, had never seen the resurrected Christ. Sure, they had the testimony of others, but they hadn’t seen him for themselves. And so perhaps here, right near the climax and close of the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t so much rebuke Thomas as he does bless all those who read this story and come to faith through it.
John pretty much says as much in what feels like the formal conclusion of his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31). And so I think Jesus is promising all those future believers — in John’s first-century community and our twenty-first-century ones — that when we hear the story of God’s love we come to faith and are blessed. Faith, after all, is hard, and believing something you haven’t seen first hand especially so.
And so John writes a story that portrays a number of different encounters with, and responses to, Jesus across the pages of his Gospel. From a teacher of Israel who comes to Jesus at night and leaves somewhat confused (John 3) to a Samaritan women who meets Jesus at noon and leaves as one of the first evangelists (John 4), and from a man healed of blindness who defies authorities (John 9) to the sisters of a dead man who confess faith in Jesus (John 10), John offers a number of different options of how to respond to the good news that God loves the whole world. John’s whole Gospel, then, is one long, narrative attempt to convince us that Jesus is the Christ through whom we find, not just life, but life in abundance.
From this perspective, far from portraying Thomas in a negative light, I think John holds him forth as a preeminent example of how even the most skeptical and hardened realist can come to faith. For after hearing Jesus’ invitation to faith, Thomas makes the great confession of John’s Gospel, calling him not just “my Lord” but also “my God,” echoing the confession articulated in the opening verses (John 1:1, 14). And to top it all off, Jesus add his own invitation and blessing to all those who hear this story and believe even though they have not seen in the same way the disciples did.
All of this leads me to my most recent question: What is it that would prompt a similar confession of faith from us today? Do we long to see Jesus like Thomas? Do we look for a loving and accepting community of believers? Do we hope to see the mercy of God enacted in the service and witness of our congregation? Do we seek someone to hold on to us when we struggle in faith or life? Or do we just need to hear John’s acknowledgment that faith is hard and receive Jesus’ invitation to faith and promise of blessing?
The answer to that question will vary, of course, from believer to believer and is shaped as well by our various circumstances and struggles. But here’s the thing, Working Preacher. You will be helping to answer that question this Sunday through your proclamation! Indeed, like the Samaritan woman, the blind man, and Martha, you give witness to your encounter with Christ and that testimony has the power to encourage and enliven others. Not only that, but you stand also with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as a present-day evangelist, declaring the promises of Jesus and pronouncing blessing as they take root in our hearts. And for that, dear Working Preacher, I am most grateful, as through the questions you ask and response of faith you offer you give witness that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that we may have life in his name.
Thank you. Even more, thank God for you!
Yours in Christ,